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The College Application: It’s Your Teenager’s Journey, Not Yours

The hundred or so parents and teens packed into the small high school cafeteria lounge were nominally assembled for a track information session, to meet the coaches, and to discuss logistics. However, as the coaches quickly discovered when they tried to bring the meeting to order, the parents had another agenda.

The meeting was scheduled smack in the middle of early decision notification week, when students who have applied exclusively to their first choice school find out if they’ve been admitted, so there was lots of hand wringing and Monday morning quarterbacking to be done.

On our way out the door, my teenage son pointed back at the scrum of anxious parents gathered in the cafeteria. He leaned over, and whispered in my ear, “Promise you won’t do that to me, okay?”

He didn’t have to explain what he meant. The parents were overwrought, and their children looked miserable. It took us every minute of our long walk to the car to shake off the secondhand stress and hysteria we’d absorbed during that hour in the cafeteria.

The College Application Belongs to Your Teen

I know the parents in that room well; we live in a small town. I taught a fair number of their children when they were in middle and high school. Consequently, I have advised some of their kids on their college essays and counseled some of these parents on the importance of giving kids more autonomy and responsibility. I’m the one who reminds them that applying to college is their child’s job. I’m the one who gently scolds when they use the possessive pronoun “our” rather than “his” or “hers” in reference to their child’s common application essay. And I’m the one they call the night of the application deadline with “one more question” about “our” essay.

And here’s what I tell them.

The college application provess is your teenager’s journey, not yours

From the first day of kindergarten, we train our children to perform in exchange for rewards. They give us compliance, attention, and effort, and we hand down grades, honors, and gold stars. Consequently, we teach them to value rewards more than learning. And after twelve years of this nonsense, many students find they have lost touch with wonder and curiosity, let alone any sense of ownership over their education. And when it comes to motivation and learning, ownership is everything.

As Edward Deci explains in his brilliant book, Why We Do What We Do, we all need to experience three things in order to be motivated and invested in a pursuit. We need autonomy, competence, and connection. In other words, we need to feel as if we have control over our lives, our goals, and the actions we take to achieve those goals. We need to know that we are capable of achieving our goals. And finally, we need to feel as if we have the support of others around us.

These three things lead to intrinsic motivation, motivation that comes from within. Intrinsic motivation is what makes kids stick with a project for hours on end without eating, distraction, or pause. It’s what endures after the ‘A’s, the honors, and the gold stars stop flowing.

Choosing a college is a highly personal decision, and there’s no better way to give your teenager autonomy than by allowing him or her to take the lead in applying to college.

Sure, you will have to write some checks for application fees, but keep your hands off that application. Trust me, they need the practice.

Dangers Of An Over Involved Parent

I’ve watched students struggle to fill out forms in class. I can testify that many kids are barely able to properly address an envelope, let alone fill out a full application. Let them get some experience with paperwork and online applications if for no other reason then they need to know how. Requesting college catalogs, downloading applications, untangling proprietary applications from common apps, selecting and soliciting the teachers for recommendations—all of these steps in the college application should be your teenager’s responsibility.

Besides, your teens are much more likely to feel invested and engaged on their first day of college if they have had a hand in all the small responsibilities and tasks that got them there, if they feel competent in the small details of functioning in the big, bad world.

Competence not confidence; it’s much more. Plenty of kids have confidence in their abilities based on years of parents’ effusive praise. But confidence is hollow and unreliable, deceptive stuff. Competence, however, can be counted on. Competence is dependable, made up of of real-world trial, error, and hard-won victories.

Confidence vs Competence

Too often, kids don’t get the chance to build their sense of competence. We make them too comfortable, substituting our competence for theirs with our helicoptering and over-parenting. The only way to build competence is through experience. It is vital that kids have some room to fail at some endeavors so they can figure out how to recover and emerge victorious in the end.

If you feel you must take some part in the application process, make sure it’s a background role. Help them set alarms in their calendars so they get reminders ahead of deadlines. Help them strategize a Plan B when Plan A falls through, but do not nag, do not micromanage, and do not intervene in communications with teachers, administrators, and college admissions officers.

Even as you step back and allow your teens to experience autonomy and competence, they still need to sense your presence. They need to know that you remain connected to them, if out of their way. This does not mean that you should jump in and save them from their missteps. On the contrary—rescuing, nagging, reminding, and micromanaging undermine the emotional connection we all work so hard to establish with our children.

Our teens need to know we have their backs. But show you trust in their ability to head out into the world and make it on their own. Our job, as parents, is to teach our kids everything they need to know so they don’t need us anymore.

As we approached the car, and opened our respective doors, I looked over the roof of the car at my gangling, outsized kid. I tapped my hand on the roof of the car to draw his attention away from his iPhone.

“Hey,” I said, and held his gaze for an extra moment or two when he looked up. Our long-understood “I’m being serious, so listen to me,” look.

“I promise,” I said, and he smiled, knowing I meant it.

Jessica Lahey is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Atlantic and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. Find out more at

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